A LIVING RENEWAL OF THE PATRISTIC TRADITION

by Protosingelos Dr. Atanasije (Jevtich)
Pro-dean, St. John the Theologian Orthodox Theological Faculty,
Belgrade, Yugoslavia

 

From the beginning the Christian Church felt the need for theological schools above all to meet its own catechetical needs. With the spread of Christianity and its encounter with the ancient world and its culture, the importance of these schools grew. To Christianize the Graeco-Roman world, the church entered in contact with the very spirit of that world, with its education, with its schools in the wildest sense of this word. This is the reason that the great Christian schools in the east, above all the schools of Alexandria and Antioch, soon after their appearance began a broad dialogue with the world in which the Christian Church lived and performed its missionary activity. This dialogue with the world was intensified by the appearance of Christian heresies with which the representatives of these schools had to fight and argue. In all these struggles we can see the enormous importance of the catechetical-theological schools for the Church’s theology and for its very life in the world. Here we note particularly the great importance of the Alexandria and Antiochian schools for the early Church. The great theologians who came out of these schools contributed substantially to the development of theological though, particularly to the recognition that authentic Orthodox theology is an incarnational vision and interpretation of the world and of life, a service to the true and living God. The theologians of the church schools served as the mouthpiece with which the Church responded to the problems which they world inevitably imposed upon her, the world which encircled her and in which the Church had to perform her evangelical mission. The Church could not renounce this mission. The greatness and merit of theologians and “scholars” of that period lay precisely in their ability to use successfully the tools and methods of the ancient world, without reducing their own work merely to utilizing scholastic and philosophical means and methods but transforming and transcending them with new Christian evangelical solutions and content. In this work the theologians were also transcending the framework of their own Christian schools and appearing as witnesses to the catholic fullness of the Church, often in a “scholarly” manner. Thus the teachers and theologians of the Christian schools became truly fathers and teachers of the Church.

An Orthodox theologian naturally remembers all this when he considers the position and service of the Orthodox theologians and theological schools in America today, particularly St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Although it cannot be said that contemporary America corresponds to the classical Graeco-Roman world, nevertheless it cannot be denied that there are some similarities in the situation in which we find the Orthodox Church in America and the early Church in the culture and civilization of the ancient world. Of course, America is already a “Christian” country, but this country is not yet Orthodox, that is, there is much in the American vision and experience of the world and of life that is far from the truly evangelical conception and experience preserved in Orthodoxy and experienced in the living tradition of the Orthodox Church. In any case, America has been acquainted with a different “Christianity” form the one which Orthodoxy embodies and bears witness to. Therefore the field of evangelical missionary and theological activities for Orthodox theologians is very extensive in America today. In opposition to an American “ecumenism,” what we may call “Americanism”, it is called to offer and bear witness to the evangelical supratemporal catholicity and unity and the handing over of the living of the living truth, which has continued in the Church without interruption through all generations, from the time of the apostles and prophets, the martyrs and the saints, the confessors and ascetics up to our own days, and this truth will be transmitted to future generations until the end of time.

It is in this context that we Orthodox theologians who belong to the old traditional Orthodox churches in the East see the mission of Orthodox theologians and theological schools in America. We would like to add immediately that with joy we recognize that St. Vladimir’s Seminary has embarked upon the mission of Orthodox education for the Kingdom of God, which it has started well and is successfully continuing.

The theologians who founded St. Vladimir’s Seminary brought to that school and to the American world all that had been brought to Western Europe by the Theologian Academy of St. Sergius in Paris. Although St. Sergius was a Russian theological school, yet it was the bearer and witness above all to the Orthodox catholic truth and the Church’s theological experience and practice. St. Vladimir’s has followed this tradition. There is no need to exaggerate the importance of the Russian theological schools from which St. Sergius and St. Vladimir’s developed, for these schools came into existence in the context of a dialogue with the surrounding world of the Western civilization and culture and therefore in considerable measure became “scholastic.” But the greatness and importance of both St. Sergius and St. Vladimir’s in America may be seen as transcending the very framework out of which they developed. This may be particularly seen in overcoming the narrow scientific system of “scholastic” theology, indeed of any “school” theology, which always strives to create a “system” of Christian beliefs out of Christian theology. It is a recognized truth, however, that in the Orthodox theological tradition such a system does not express the organic fullness which Christian truth and life embody. Neither St. Segius nor its living branch, St. Vladimir’s in America, have been without limitations and defects, but these were not the scholastic defects of old Russia, large parts of which were simply copies of the Roman Catholic and Protestant West. The theological schools in Russia began to free themselves from the Western scholastic system only at the end of the last century. This system was introduced and imposed by the reforms of Peter the Great. What weaknesses there were at St. Sergius and St. Vladimir’s were ordinary human weaknesses, inevitable in human life and work. They were the results of the insufficient resources which these schools found in their new environments. Nevertheless their contributions to Orthodox theology and to the Church in the West, and not only in the West, far outweigh weaknesses and limitations.

The great importance and contribution of St. Vladimir’s consists above all in this: that it was the first Orthodox theological school in America founded on healthy soil of time-tested theological witness of Orthodoxy as the only right confession of Christ as the God-Man who is the only way, the truth and the light for man and the world. Or as the great Russian writer Dostoevsky characterizes Orthodoxy: “The worship of Christ rightly and gloriously, and the complete moral transformation of man by His name” (“Material for the novel The Devils”).

In the theological teaching and witness of theologians at St. Vladimir’s, Orthodoxy is presented, not as one of the Christian confessions, but as the living faith and proclamation of one holy apostolic catholic Church of Christ, the Church of the apostles and the fathers, martyrs and ascetics who followed Christ and carried the cross to their very death, which resurrection follows. It is very characteristic of the main representatives at St. Vladimir’s that they put as their first task, not the modernization or Americanization of their theological school, but return to the theology of the fathers of the Church, more precisely, to the living renewal of the patristic spirit and method in our life, thought and witness today. Our return to evangelical metanoia is the only sure and salvatory way to transform the mind and heart of contemporary man. Hence the patristic, or what some would call neo-patristic, method and content of theologizing has been one of the basic characteristics of the theological work and practice of most of the theologians at St. Vladimir’s. Here we see the continuity with true Russian and international Orthdox theology.

All this does not at all mean that the professors at St. Vladimir’s became antiquarians, custodians, retrogrades, who were not able to be incorporated into American culture and civilization, into American schools, or to deal with the problems of the contemporary world. Quite the contrary, many of the professors at this Orthodox seminary are very popular in America, deliver courses and lectures at many universities and scholarly gatherings, and their work is being read eagerly. Like the ancient Antiochians and Alexandrians, St. Vladimir’s theologians find themselves in constant and living dialogue with contemporary Americans, constantly witnessing to the depth of Orthodox living tradition, to patristic theology and theologizing, and to the liturgical life and practice of the church. It is not accidental that the contribution of St. Vladimir’s Seminary not only to Orthodoxy in America but to theology on the old continent as well, is seen in the renewal of patristic and liturgical theology, which has now become the property of every Orthodox theologian, priest and believer. The contributions have been by no means slight in other areas, but this is not the place to speak now about these. What is most important, in our opinion, and what we want to emphasize is that the contributions of this theological school are a new return, the founding of a “system” of Orthodox theology in living ecclesiological, i.e., cosmic, context, and active service to the Church, and through this to the salvation of the world and of man.

from 1998 Calendar
of the Serbian Orthodox Church
in the United States of America and Canada

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